Born Into Brothels - Filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman
Zana Briski first set out for Calcutta to photographs the lives of prostitutes in the red-light district. Living in a brothel to gain an insider's perspective, she quickly became attached to the prostitutes' young children, charmed by their spirit and tenacity. She purchased simple point-and-shoot cameras and began teaching the kids about the art of photography. Within a short time, Briski put down her own lens in favor of a video camera, and called upon her then-boyfriend, filmmaker Ross Kauffman, to join her in Calcutta. Together, the two created Born into Brothels, exploring Briski's journey to empower these children through photography, and ultimately, to get them out of the brothels. The film won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2004, and was named Best Documentary by both the L.A. Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review. I sat down with the filmmakers to learn a bit more about their experiences in India, and the head-trip of their great success so far.
Q: Zana, what made you decide that you wanted to live in a Calcutta brothel?
Briski: I knew as soon as I went to the red-light district that that's where I needed to be, and that's what I wanted to do. It was a question of fully immersing myself in it.
Q: You went into the brothels initially to shoot the women. What was the transition into working with the children?
Briski: I love photography, and I was really fascinated by the life of the women. I always had my camera on me and, though I couldn't shoot very much, that was really my focus Then the kids would just come up behind me- I'd have my camera around my shoulder, and they'd try use it. I just thought it would be great to teach them. It ended up just completely taking over, so I dropped my own photography. Or completing it, really. It was kind of a natural transition. For a while, I was still trying to shoot my own stuff, but I just couldn't do everything. The more I tried to get the kids out of the brothels, the harder it was to continue the photo class.
Q: When you went in, you had no idea you would be making a film.
Briski: No way.
Q: When did you decide to pick up a video camera?
Briski: As soon as I saw the first contact sheets, from the first class. I didn't decide to make a film, but I knew it was important to document what was happening. The idea was there.
Q: When did you first travel to India?
Briski: I went to India for the first time ever in '95, and I was photographing there for about five months. My first experience was amazing, because I was invited to a monastery for three weeks by Tibetan monks. I first went to Calcutta in 1997. I did my own photography, in terms of getting access to the brothels, and then started teaching the kids in 2000. I started filming at the end of that year, and Ross came to India in 2001. We finished shooting in 2002, edited for a year, and finished the film in January 2004.
Q: So you've never had a break from the film?
Briski: [laugh] We haven't had a break, period.
Q: Are you looking for one?
Do you want to move onto different projects now?
Briski: I do, yes, but I'm still very, very involved with the kids. I've started an organization Kids with Cameras (www.kids-with-cameras.org), and we're building a school for in Calcutta which will open next year. So I don't know when a break is going to come. [laughs] But I'd like one!
Q: Are you taking photographs again?
Briski: I have no time, though I really want to. I haven't taken photographs in three years.
Q: When did Kids with Cameras originate?
Briski: I started it at the end of 2002, but it didn't really take off until the film was out. The mission is to empower marginalized children to learn the art of photography. So this is one of our projects for the kids in Calcutta. We've been raising money for the kids by selling their photography at film festivals. We had a traveling exhibition last year, and so far we've raised $100,000 for the kids just by selling their prints. A hundred percent of that goes to the kids for their education. There's a fund for the individual kids, so I pay organizations for taking care of them, or pay for computer classes, or English classes. If any of the kids want to go to university, the money is there. The school is another thing. If we continue to raise a lot of money from selling the prints, that extra money will go towards other kids like them, children of prostitutes.
Kauffman: One of the kids in the film, Gour, the really sensitive one, is going into the red-light district and checking up on the other kids. When there's a problem, he'll let us know, email us or give us a call, do whatever he has to do. So they're already starting to take care of themselves, which is a great thing.
Q: Have any of them turned to prostitution?
Briski: No, none of the children are prostitutes. Suchitra has had problems, but none of them are in the line yet. Three more of the kids are out of the brothels.
Q: Have the children seen the film?
Briski: No. They've seen as we were shooting. They saw what we were shooting and we'd play it back to them. We're actually going on Monday.
Kauffman: [rolls eyes and grins] Back to Calcutta. We'll probably show it to them then, and I'm sure they'll love it.
Briski: They're going to be shocked when they see some of it.
Kauffman: Yeah, they'll be shocked, but it'll be okay.
Q: You said those years you spent in India were hard. What was the hardest part?
Briski: Honestly, it was all hard. The financial pressure was really a pain in the ass. If I could have taken that out, it would have been an awful lot easier. On top of everything else—living in brothels, getting sick, trying to help kids, teaching and not knowing what the hell I was doing, and splitting my life between another planet, essentially, and coming back to America where nobody knew what I was doing—to add financial pressure onto that, it was really, really hard. Not having medical insurance, not being able to pay rent. Then staying up until four in the morning every night trying to do grant applications, I really could have done without that. That's part of my wanting to support other photographers who want to go out and do some of their work, because there's almost nothing out there for serious photographers. Which I think is a crime.
Kauffman: Calcutta is just a difficult place. Every day you walk out that door and you're bombarded- by people, by smells, by noise. Not just in the red-light district, it's everywhere.
Briski: To feel that much poverty and suffering is hard. And at the same time, people are so resilient it's amazing.
Q: That's what's so incredible about the film as well. It captures the joy that children can experience in any environment. What were some of your best memories with the kids?
Briski: The taxi rides. Those taxi rides were insane. For me, that was one of the funniest things, just rounding up the kids and herding them in. They just hadn't been in taxis before. And going to the zoo, which turned out to be a kind of a depressing trip [laughs]. Also, taking them to the sea. That was a stressful trip for me because there was so much involved in getting the kids together for a weekend, getting their mothers to trust me, and all the rest of it. But to actually see their response to the sea was really amazing. And of course, the photo show. To come out in downtown Calcutta, amongst the middle class, and take these little kids to show their work, it was astounding. It was really unheard of. I mean, no one paid attention to these little kids at all.
Q: How many children did you teach?
Briski: I had two classes, and there were 21 kids in all. This was one of the classes. I ended up dropping the other class because they were pretty much Mafia kids. I couldn't really affect their lives, and the Mafia was putting pressure on me to give them money. They wanted to control things, they didn't want girls in the class. It just wasn't a good thing for me to do, so I really put all my effort into this original group of kids.
Q: Was there any time when you were filming that you just wanted to drop everything?
Briski: I always wanted to drop everything. I still want to [laughs].
Kauffman: Every day.
Briski: But it was never an option.
Kauffman: There were some times with me and you when we were so tired, we were just like "Forget it."
Briski: It was really never an option. I knew what would have happened if I left, let's put it that way.
Q: Ross, you mentioned at one point that you didn't want to get involved with this project.
Briski: He still doesn't want to do it [laughs].
Kauffman: Zana asked me if I wanted to make a film. I had been an editor for a long time, and I had seen filmmakers do this, spend years and years and years of their lives working on something that's not really getting seen. That was a scary thought to me. I told her no, I wasn't ready to do that with my life, and…
Briski: I didn't listen.
Kauffman: She's very sneaky and tenacious, and bought two video cameras.
Q: And you two were a couple at that point, right?
Kauffman: We were a couple then, yeah. She went to Calcutta, and I said ‘Go ahead, go for it. Good luck.' Then she sent back four videotapes, I saw the footage and fell in love with the kids. I was in Calcutta about three weeks later.
Q: Now that it's done so well, it's been the opposite of what you were scared of, right?
Briski: Hey, good point!
Kauffman: It wasn't about whether the film would do well or not. That's not what I was really hesitant about. To me it was like, this is a huge commitment to put four years of your life into. I had seen other people go through it, and it's a painful endeavor. I knew we'd be broke, I knew we wouldn't be able to do anything else for the next three to five years of our lives. I knew all this stuff, and it's all come true. That was a little daunting, to say the least. But I wouldn't give it up for the world.
Q: Zana, as a woman, how did you feel about the safety of India in general, and living in the red-light district?
Briski: India in general is fine. I always travel alone. I've been to a lot worse countries than India, in terms of the safety. In terms of the attention from men, it's really annoying. Really, really annoying, like they're in your face all the time. But the red-light district is dangerous, for sure. All the time I felt it.
Q: Did you walk around Calcutta alone?
Briski: Yeah, I've done just about everything. Most of the time we had a translator, but I was living in a brothel, so it's not like I had somebody with me all the time. And it was scary, for sure, particularly with drunk men, because you never know what they're going to do.
Q: You seem very comfortable with adventure travel, going to a third world country and immersing yourself in it. Ross, had you ever done that kind of thing before?
Kauffman: Only since I met her [laughs]. I had been to India before and traveled for about six months. But before I met Zana I really hadn't done any of that.
Briski: I dragged him kicking and screaming.
Kauffman: It's really interesting, it was fun. But I'm happy to be home with my cat now.
Briski: I'm comfortable with it, but when I get sick, I swear I'm never going to do it again. And of course as soon as I recover, I'm like "Okay, what's next?"
Kauffman: And Zana always gets sick.
Q: Zana, you said you didn't like appearing in front of the camera, but you're a central figure of the story. Ross never appears in front of the camera.
Briski: Ross was really there as a filmmaker, and I was there as an…everything. Photographer, social worker, everything.
Kauffman: Zana was really the catalyst of the story. Without her it wouldn't have happened. As she started to get really involved with them to get them out of the brothels, I started to see that she was really telling the story of herself and the kids. She'd tell the whole story, over and over and over again, each time she'd meet someone new. I'd start to hear the story and think, "I have to film her because she's really telling the story."
Q: How did you fund the film?
Kauffman: Visa and MasterCard.
Briski: We paid for most of the project with credit cards. I originally had a grant to do my own photography, and then I'd go back for six months, for about six years. So financing has been very, very difficult. We're still paying off the debt.
Kauffman: Zana is the queen of getting zero balances.
Q: How did you get large organizations to get involved, like Amnesty International using the kids' photos in their 2004 calendar, and Sotheby's auctioning off the photographs?
Briski: Amnesty got involved because of the photo agency we worked with, Contact Press Images, works on their calendar every year. With Sotheby's, we were actually aligned with another non-profit at the time, and they asked us to join their annual auction.
Q: How does the distribution of the film work, between HBO and Thinkfilm's theatrical release?
Briski: We started negotiating with HBO about a month before Sundance. We weren't quite finished the film at that point.
Kauffman: We actually finished the film the day before Sundance. Thinkfilm came on board in April, after the Full Frame Festival in North Carolina. HBO was first to sign onto the film. We basically told them that we don't know if there's going to be a theatrical release, but we want to be open to the idea. When Thinkfilm became interested, we just had to make sure that HBO would give us a theatrical window, and they did. They were good to their word. We'll be on HBO in June 2005.
Q: Have you had offers come in since the success of this film?
Briski: He's had a couple of offers, but I haven't had anything. But I'm also not really looking for anything. It's really funny. I think people are like "Oh, I'm not going to go anywhere near her" [laughs].
Kauffman: Yeah, I'm working on a couple of different films, more as a cinematographer than a director. I can't imagine directing another film that I don't care deeply about. And if that film comes around, then that's great-
Briski: I think he's waiting for me to do something else crazy.
Kauffman: It might be a while before I direct another movie. Who knows, maybe it will happen tomorrow.
Q: How many hours of footage did you shoot?
Kauffman: We shot 170 hours total. We got all that footage translated, every second. I didn't want to lose any of it. We edited for about a year to whittle it down to 83 minutes and 70 seconds. We thought about having me edit, but I just didn't want to. I knew we needed a third eye, so we had Nancy Baker come in (Streetwise). She was wonderful. She edited for seven months, and I edited for the last four months, but it was a really collaborative process between the three of us.
Q: How was it going from the environment of Calcutta to something like Sundance?
Kauffman: From one whorehouse to the next!
Briski: [laughs] Life is just one big brothel. Some are just more comfortable than others.
Kauffman: No, Sundance was great.
Briski: We weren't looking to sell, we were just along for the ride. We had already finalized the deal with HBO, so anything was a plus. We saw other people get totally stressed out, and we were like "Whatever." We didn't sleep much, but it was an incredible experience.
Kauffman: Just going back from Calcutta to America is a little mind-boggling.
Briski: The supermarkets.
Kauffman: I was just thinking about it today- it must have been so hard when Zana was doing it alone. To just come back to this country and not have anyone to talk to, to share anything. Even though we were going out, I didn't really know what she was going through. Even though she wrote me letters every day.
Briski: You didn't read them.
Kauffman: I did read them! You just don't know until you experience it. I mean, India is a crazy place. When I went, at least both of us could sort of…
Briski: You'd come back and people were like "So how was your trip?!"
Kauffman: Now that we've made this film, people can actually see what we went through, and we can share that with them, it's not so lonely coming back. Which is great. Our family and friends finally understand what the hell we were doing for four years.
Briski: Your family and friends.
Q: Did everyone think you were crazy for what you were doing?
Kauffman: They still do.
Q: Even after all the success?
Briski: Everyone is thrilled for us, but they still think we're crazy.
Kauffman: I think we're crazy. I think she's crazy.